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Waiting for the Invisible Hand: Market Power and Endogenous Information in the Modern Market for Food

  • Trenton Smith

    ()

  • Hayley Chouinard
  • Philip Wandschneider

    (School of Economic Sciences, Washington State University)

In many ways, the modern market for food exemplifies the economist’s conception of perfect competition, with many buyers, many sellers, and a robust and dynamic marketplace. But over the course of the last century, the U.S. has witnessed a dramatic shift away from traditional diets and toward a diet comprised primarily of processed brand-name foods with deleterious long-term health effects. This, in turn, has generated increasingly urgent calls for policy interventions aimed at improving the quality of the American diet. In this paper, we ask whether the current state of affairs represents a market failure, and—if so—what might be done about it. We review evidence that most of the nutritional deficiencies associated with today’s processed foods were unknown to nutrition science at the time these products were introduced, promoted, and adopted by American consumers. Today more is known about the nutritional implications of various processing technologies, but a number of forces—including consumer habits, costly information, and the market power associated with both existing brands and scale economies—are working in concert to maintain the status quo. We argue that while the current brand-based industrial food system (adopted and maintained historically as a means of preventing competition from small producers) has its advantages, the time may have come to consider expanding the system of quality grading employed in commodity markets into the retail market for food.

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Paper provided by School of Economic Sciences, Washington State University in its series Working Papers with number 2009-07.

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Length: 40 pages
Date of creation: Feb 2009
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:wsu:wpaper:wandschneider-1
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  1. Smith, Trenton G, 2002. "The McDonald's Equilibrium: Advertising, Empty Calories, and the Endogenous Determination of Dietary Preferences," University of California at Santa Barbara, Economics Working Paper Series qt0hx9x4jr, Department of Economics, UC Santa Barbara.
  2. Parke Wilde, . "Federal Communication about Obesity in the Dietary Guidelines and Checkoff Programs," Working Papers in Food Policy and Nutrition 27, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, revised May 2005.
  3. Alston, Julian M. & Sumner, Daniel A. & Vosti, Stephen A., 2008. "Farm subsidies and obesity in the United States: National evidence and international comparisons," Food Policy, Elsevier, vol. 33(6), pages 470-479, December.
  4. Shin-Yi Chou & Michael Grossman & Henry Saffer, 2002. "An Economic Analysis of Adult Obesity: Results from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System," NBER Working Papers 9247, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  5. Unnevehr, Laurian J. & Jagmanaite, Evelina, 2008. "Getting rid of trans fats in the US diet: Policies, incentives and progress," Food Policy, Elsevier, vol. 33(6), pages 497-503, December.
  6. Paul R. Milgrom & John Roberts, 1984. "Price and Advertising Signals of Product Quality," Cowles Foundation Discussion Papers 709, Cowles Foundation for Research in Economics, Yale University.
  7. Inas Rashad & Sara Markowitz, 2007. "Incentives in Obesity and Health Insurance," NBER Working Papers 13113, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  8. John M. Crespi & St)phan Marette, 2001. "How Should Food Safety Certification be Financed?," American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, vol. 83(4), pages 852-861.
  9. Smith, Trenton G. & Tasnadi, Attila, 2007. "A theory of natural addiction," Games and Economic Behavior, Elsevier, vol. 59(2), pages 316-344, May.
  10. Smith Trenton G. & Stoddard Christiana & Barnes Michael G, 2009. "Why the Poor Get Fat: Weight Gain and Economic Insecurity," Forum for Health Economics & Policy, De Gruyter, vol. 12(2), pages 1-31, June.
  11. David M. Cutler & Edward L. Glaeser & Jesse M. Shapiro, 2003. "Why Have Americans Become More Obese?," Harvard Institute of Economic Research Working Papers 1994, Harvard - Institute of Economic Research.
  12. Nelson, Phillip, 1970. "Information and Consumer Behavior," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 78(2), pages 311-29, March-Apr.
  13. Darby, Michael R & Karni, Edi, 1973. "Free Competition and the Optimal Amount of Fraud," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 16(1), pages 67-88, April.
  14. Reardon, Thomas & Codron, Jean-Marie & Busch, Lawrence & Bingen, R. James & Harris, Craig, 1999. "Global Change In Agrifood Grades And Standards: Agribusiness Strategic Responses In Developing Countries," International Food and Agribusiness Management Review, International Food and Agribusiness Management Association (IAMA), vol. 2(03/04).
  15. Diakalia Sanogo & William Masters, 2002. "Welfare gains from quality certification of infant foods: Results from a market experiment in mali," Framed Field Experiments 00191, The Field Experiments Website.
  16. Schmalensee, Richard., 1980. "Product differentiation advantages of pioneering brands," Working papers 1140-80., Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Sloan School of Management.
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